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Red Sox coaches recall Mariano Rivera’s pro baseball beginnings

03.09.13 at 9:33 am ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — On the day that Mariano Rivera announced the plans for the end of his career, a pair of Red Sox coaches recalled his professional origins.

Juan Nieves, the current Red Sox pitching coach, was nearing the terminus of his career when the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal in the spring of 1991. He was barely off the operating table of Dr. James Andrews at the time, following a last-ditch (and ultimately unsuccessful) effort to salvage his left shoulder, when he entered New York’s system as a 26-year-old. And it was there, in minor league spring training, where he first glimpsed the greatness of Mariano Rivera.

Rivera was then 21, and was coming off a dazzling debut in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League, where in 52 innings, he had a 0.17 ERA with 58 strikeouts and just seven walks in 1990. And when Nieves saw the young right-hander — just five years younger than Nieves, it’s worth noting — that spring, his stuff was anything but overwhelming.

“He was mostly a straight fastball guy, threw some change ups, really solid delivery, was able to throw strikes all the time,” said Nieves. “Just a great delivery, [but because of the lack of secondary stuff] he projected more as a reliever.”

But there was something that made Nieves take notice, something that arrested his attention among the ranks of younger pitchers with whom he was working at the time.

“The serenity of a pitcher,” Nieves exhaled. “You knew he had a presence about him right away. His dedication and routine — he was very calm, yet a gladiator on the mound. The records speak for it. Everything speaks for it. … But you could tell — the presence, the demeanor — it was coming. It was a matter of time.”

That year also represented the first time that Brian Butterfield — now the Red Sox third base coach, then a Yankees roving infield instructor — had a chance to see the pitcher. In 1991, Rivera was being developed as a starter in Single-A Greensboro, where he had a 2.75 ERA with 9.7 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings in a 114 2/3 innings season. Butterfield would also manage Rivera in 1992, with Fort Lauderdale of the High-A Florida State League.

Butterfield took a few moments to try to recall his initial impressions of Rivera. When it was noted that the task was made more difficult by the wealth of players he’s seen in almost three decades of coaching, managing and instruction, he retorted, “Not anybody like this!”

“He was a very athletic guy. He had a fastball right around 91, 92, then he started getting stronger,” recalled Butterfield. “Tremendous kid, very respectful, hard worker and one of the fastest kids in the organization. Always looking to get better. Wonderful kid to be around. Soft spoken, funny.”

Again, the stuff was anything but outrageous. Butterfield suggested that Rivera did not have a breaking ball to speak of at the time, nor did he have a cut fastball. Still, he remained a projectable prospect because of the fluidity — the artfulness, really — of his delivery, something that permitted him to throw strikes and locate.

“I know I graded him favorably — I think all of us did — because of the athleticism, the willingness to work, the type of individual,” said Butterfield. “It was a very good delivery. It’s always been a very good delivery where you had a feeling he could repeat his pitches because good athlete and good delivery usually equals a guy who can repeat his pitches. He did not [have a breaking ball]. And he did not have the cutter. He might have had a little tiny one — just with a little cut off of his natural fastball — but I don’t know when he started developing The Cutter.”

In 1995, however, Butterfield was the Yankees’ big league first base coach when Rivera was promoted to the majors.

“As a coach, that was the first time I’d seen him in a long time,” said Butterfield. “The jump in velocity stood out — he was a bigger, stronger athlete. When we had him, he was just a kid. Just a young kid.”

Both Butterfield and Nieves have had an opportunity, over the course of more than two decades, to see what Rivera has become, to observe the emergence of one of the all-time greats at his narrowly defined craft, a transcendent postseason performer who has been the signature October performer for more than 15 years.

And how would they define that experience, that vantage point from which they observed Rivera not only as a game-ending force but also one who was finding his way?

“Not very fun at all,” Butterfield joked, “especially being in the same division, because usually in the ninth inning, it’s over. But he’s a wonderful kid. … He’s just so special — such a special athlete, so soft-spoken, he’s a great role model for any of those young pitchers who come up: Just keep your eye open and watch that guy.”

Of course, as impressive as Rivera was as a person and athlete and competitor when he was 21, Butterfield admits that he could never have forecast the direction his career would ultimately take.

“I think anybody would have a hard time projecting what he’s become,” said Butterfield. “Greatest of all time — and it ain’t even close.”

There will now be one more year for Rivera to add to his accolades and his list of accomplishments, one final chapter of an extraordinary career. And while Nieves now finds himself on the opposite side of a team rivalry with the great closer, he nevertheless suggests that his appreciation every time he watches Rivera pitch will be considerable.

“I hope people watched him a lot, because there’s only one of those guys. He’s in a league of his own,” said Nieves. “We’re speaking about the best of the best.”

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